I’m not really sure what to say about this book. I finished it a few days ago and was waiting for some sort of intelligent analysis to appear from the recesses of my brain but sadly I am still lacking in wise insights. All I am able to express is the sheer exuberance, vitality and fun of this novel, which felt very much like being on a rollercoaster. I have read Angela Carter novels before and so I knew I was in for something a little less than ordinary but this really does leap outside of the box and transcend all of your expectations. I loved it!
It is the story of the Chance sisters, or ‘The Lucky Chances’, Dora and Nora; identical illegitimate twins, born in a Brixton boarding house to a parlour maid mother and a scion of the world’s greatest acting dynasty, who would go on to become Sir Melchior Hazard, greatest actor of his time. Told through the eyes of Dora, it is a rip roaring ride through the 20th century, taking in the sleazy dressing rooms of backwater theatres as the girls make their high kicking debuts on the stage as chorus girls, the glitz and glamour of 1930s Hollywood, and the squalor of the old boarding house in the early 90’s, packed with memories and memorabilia as the sisters enter their late 70s, still just as glamorous and unconventional as they were in their youth.
It is a cast packed with unconventional and almost unbelievable characters; the twins Sir Melchior and Peregrine Hazard, illegitimate sons of the famous actor Ranulph Hazard and his beautiful actress wife Estella, Dora and Nora, their ‘Grandma’ Chance, who raised them from birth but who is really no relation to them at all; Saskia and Imogen Hazard, daughters of Melchior and his first wife, the beautiful aristocrat Lady Atalanta, and sworn enemies of Dora and Nora, plus a wide cast of lovers, other family members, friends and hangers on who populate the glamorous and eventful lives of the Lucky Chances over their 75 years. The story begins on Dora and Nora’s 75th birthday, also the 100th birthday of Sir Melchior, to whose party they are going, and this triggers Dora’s memories of her life, which the book tells in hilarious and entertaining fashion. Dora’s voice is authentic, bawdy, and filled with joie de vivre; the Chance girls don’t live with regret or sorrow for the past and they packed their lives with as much as they could fit in; lovers, incestuous relationships, Hollywood movies, theatre performances, fur coats, lacy knickers and exotic perfumes. They danced and sung their way through their troubles and it is this sense of life as a performance, as something to be enjoyed and indulged in and not taken too seriously that gives the novel such a refreshingly vivacious feel. It is truly a celebration of life, and as it was written by Carter while she was dying of cancer, I think it is that message of life being a wonderful, exciting gift to be rejoiced in that really shines through the pages.
Of course, being wirtten by Angela Carter, it is a very witty and subversive novel, using plenty of Shakespearean conceits to great effect and to produce fantastic, larger than life characters. There are the infinite succession of twins, some identical and some not, whose identity is fluid, as well as that of their children. Most characters are illegitimate, some knowingly, most unknowingly, and this makes for interesting observations as to the source of our identity and history, and whether a parent is more than just biology. Dora and Nora swap identities and play on their identical faces; twins swap sexual partners and produce children who could be or could not be their own. Incest also features, with the shaky definition of who is whose parent making it difficult to know whether any of it really is incest, and the amount of marriages and sexual partners and random babies belonging to who knows who results in a cast of characters who are dysfunctional, mad, and absolutely hilarious. I felt like I was watching the cast of The Tempest on a high. Favourite characters include Peregrine, the girls’ ‘uncle’, an indestructible, adventurous lothario who lavishes love and attention on Dora and Nora and as far as everyone else knows, is their real father, ‘Grandma’ Chance, the girls’ guardian, who keeps her past shrouded in mystery and likes a tipple, and Lady Atalanta, otherwise known as ‘Wheelchair’, abandoned by Melchior for a Hollywood floozy during the filming of his one and only Hollywood movie, a version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, also starring Dora and Nora, and now resident in the basement of the Brixton boarding house where the Chances have lived all their lives.
This is a wonderful, clever, funny and life affirming novel that had me rejoicing in the possibilities of life and the adventures I could go on. I can’t recommend this enough and I can’t wait to read more Carter. Thanks to Claire at Paperback Reader for encouraging me to finally get around to reading this by hosting an Angela Carter Month!